When I was just entering college, I stumbled upon an article in the New York Times discussing people who identified as genderqueer and used the alternative pronoun set ze and hir. I had been identifying that way myself for almost a year. Seeing it in print in a national newspaper gave me a level of validation. Every time I try to explain it though, it’s a practice people tend to find incredibly confusing.
When I first realized that my-birth assigned gender and biological body did not have to dictate my actual gender, I had to ask myself, what does? I’d heard that gender was supposed to be based on how you feel, but having been raised to believe that gender was inconsequential, I never had any strong feelings of being one gender or another. I knew what I felt, but I didn’t know what gender my feelings represented.
Liking embroidery didn’t mean I had to be a girl. Disliking makeup didn’t mean I couldn’t. There are as many differences among men and among women as there are differences between them. Yet it seems that at a certain point, one goes from being atypical for one’s gender to not being that gender. Not feeling like a woman is a different experience from feeling like a man. In examining those differences, you can begin to see the variety of gender options available to people.
There is very little language to describe all of these in-between or outside gender experiences. I could list off some of the terms people have come up with to describe the gender lenses through which they view the world—boi-dyke, gendertrash, freak, sissy, non-gendered, genderqueer, bi-gender, etc.—but unless you already have a sense of what those phrases mean it won’t communicate very much.
Living a non-binary gender in a society that is intensely invested in gender binaries can be difficult. Even when looking directly at someone with a non-binary gender, most people will decide the person they are looking at is a short-haired woman with facial hair, or a man with breasts wearing fishnets, rather than someone who is neither or both. Alternative pronouns, like ze/hir, are a way to combat that invisibility and collective denial. It’s a way of announcing to the world, “I exist.”
An Evolving Lexicon
English professors, grammar nuts, and gender rebels often come up with their own alternative pronoun sets. Ze/hir is one of the most prominent and has been in use since the ’70s. In some regions people use ze/zim/zir as an alternative variation.
In addition to using other pronoun sets, you can use ‘they’ as a singular pronoun, avoid pronouns, alternate pronouns. These are all things to do at people’s request. It would be considered very rude to avoid pronouns for someone who didn’t want that, especially if it was an attempt to not have to use their preferred pronoun.
Example: I watched him as he did his homework
Ex: I watched her as she did her homework
Ex: I watched hir as ze did hir homework
Ex: I watched them as they did their homework
Pronoun Avoidance by rearranging sentences
Ex: We hung out for a while and I can tell you the homework certainly did get done. I watched.
When confronted with a new pronoun set, it’s not unusual for people to be resistant or claim that it’s not possible to change an ingrained subset of language such as pronouns. This ignores the fact that most English speakers already use a gender-neutral pronoun—the singular “they.”
People are happy to use the singular they for a generic unknown person of unspecified gender. It is when they are speaking about an individual they know that people suddenly have trouble with “they” and insist on referring to a person as “he” or “she,” even when that person is neither male nor female. Knowing the person’s gender matters not because they are unfamiliar with “they” or other gender-neutral pronouns, but because they are uncomfortable interacting with someone they can’t assign a binary gender to.
Using pronouns of any type is typically an unconscious behavior. Without over-thinking things, it’s not too difficult to incorporate ze and hir, they, or other pronoun sets into the personal lexicon. The newness of the words can be an added complication, but that excuse only goes so far when people are constantly learning a plethora of new slang, Internet lingo, and technical terms.
Of course mistakes will be made, but the way one handles a mistake can make a world of difference. I’ve had people sit down beside me and explain that they truly want to respect my pronouns, but they’ll have to go through a learning curve, and then proceed to use the wrong pronouns unflinchingly until we go our separate ways months later. Alternatively, I’ve had other folks push themselves even when it sounded awkward and after making an honest effort still slipped up a few times. If you can demonstrably show that you are trying to use alternative pronouns, then no one has to wonder if your honest mistakes are actually veiled insults.
If you do catch yourself mispronouning someone, the best thing to do is to correct yourself and move on. Don’t spend the next 10 minutes apologizing and looking for forgiveness. Don’t explain how you’re working on it. And most certainly don’t declare that it’s unreasonable to expect someone to use an alternative pronoun set or take offense being corrected.
Being called by the wrong pronoun is sort of like having your toes stepped on. It’s not just a faux pas, it’s hurtful. Sure, it might be an accident, they might be sorry, you might forgive them, but it still hurts. And if it happens repeatedly then you might not want to be around them. No matter how sorry a person is, sometimes it’s safer to just stay away from the klutz who keeps stomping on your feet.
Most people are familiar with the impact of mispronouning someone who goes by traditional pronouns. Mispronouning someone who uses alternative pronouns isn’t necessarily any different. Some people may let it roll off their back, knowing that it’s something many people aren’t familiar with. Other people might feel deeply hurt and disrespected.
One major variable that might influence that is any preference they might have between binary pronouns. I spent a couple years asking everyone to use ze/hir for me. Plenty of people did. Many more people didn’t. People being unwilling to or forgetting to use ze hurt much less then the fact that everyone reverted to calling me ‘he’—something which left me feeling devastated. Eventually I stopped asking all but my close friends to use ‘ze’ for me and just asked for ‘she.’ I couldn’t trust most people well enough to ask for what I wanted, because it risked losing what I needed. Now, anytime I ask someone to call me ‘ze,’ it’s because I have a high level of respect and trust for them.
Not everybody reserves a pronoun set for those they trust, and often times you’ll hear alternative pronouns in a pronoun check-in. Nonetheless, anytime someone asks me to use an alternative pronoun set for them I recognize that I’m being trusted with an important responsibility. Learning to adapt to unfamiliar pronouns is a skill. It can be frustrating at times. But that sense of trust and responsibility is a strong motivator. And once that skill is built, it’s not hard to slip in a new pronoun, rotate between a few, or even restructure sentences to avoid them altogether.
I had a friend who I once noticed kept answering the pronoun check-in with, “I don’t know,” and everyone just continued to call them ‘she.’ I checked in with him about it and they explained that he never really liked ‘she,’ but ‘he’ didn’t seem to fit, and ‘ze’ just sounded weird to him. I suggested that I could alternate between ‘he’ and ‘she’—even being sure to include both in every statement I made about him—and he lit up.
He said, “Wow! You could do that? I’d love for you to do that for me.”
So that’s what I did, for a few months, until he realized that ‘he’ fit for him and had the confidence to ask for it. It was in that moment, though, that I realized this skill is not just an issue of etiquette, but something very valuable that could have a tangible benefit on peoples’ lives.